Argentine Yerba Mate: The Starter’s Kit
Though wine is certainly the beverage of choice amongst Mendoza locals, yerba mate is a close second. This communal tea is one of the oldest Argentine traditions and it brings together family, friends, coworkers and study groups. On your adventures through Mendoza and Argentina, you can bet that sooner or later someone will offer you a sip, so here is what you need to know.
Mate is a traditional tea-like beverage made from a plant found in the north east region of Argentina. The plant leaves are picked, dried, and processed into Yerba Mate. This dried leaf mixture is than placed into a round container, known as a mate. Mates come in all shapes and sizes and can be made from a variety of different materials including wood, dried gourd, glass, and even silicon. Wooden and gourd mates are by far the most popular as the container can be “cured,” which gives the drink an additional level of flavor complexity.
Once the mate is filled two thirds full with yerba, hot water is poured atop the dry leaves, which infuse the liquid with a decidedly herbal – often quite bitter – taste. The drinker consumes the mate through a small metal straw, known as a bombilla. This traditional straw has a filter on one end, which keeps the leaves from clogging the small pipe.
How to Serve Mate – The Ceremony
Unlike other beverages, Mate is served in a very particular way amongst Argentines and the rules of engagement are important for travelers to pick up on so that they can avoid any faux pas. Rule number one is that Mate is always prepared and served by one person in the group. This person (known as the cebador) drinks the first mate, as it is always the strongest and most bitter, then passes the mate around the group. Group members drink until the water runs out and pass the mate back to the cebador to refill the water and replenish the yerba if necessary. If you’re drinking mate and don’t want any more, simply return the mate to the cebador and say “gracias.”
Lots of travelers raise their eyebrows at the prospect of sharing the same straw with a number of different people, but here in Argentina we like to believe that any germs are killed off by the nearly boiling water (whether or not that’s the case). One thing is certain however, touching the bombilla is strictly off limits. Don’t grab onto it, don’t swirl it around, or your next mate session could get a little too hostile for your liking.
- Mate: refers to the small open cup, or hollowed gourd that holds the yerba and water
- Yerba mate: the tea leafs
- Bombilla: long metal straw with a filter on one end. The filter prevents tea leaves from traveling up the straw. Be careful though, after a while the bombilla can heat up quite a bit, so be careful before locking lips and taking a sip.
- Termo: thermos, or vessel to transport hot water (note: the hot water should never come to a boil)
- Azucar: sugar
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